A solemn day

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted a pool. When high summer comes and the dog days transform our daily movements into desperate rushes from one air conditioned building to another; or worse, a slow, droopy, frizzy-haired burn in a non-freon endowed stuffy room, there’s nothing better than the thought of stripping down and jumping into some crystal clear, chlorinated H2O – except actually doing it. Unfortunately, I’ve never actually lived in a house with a pool. Cruel fate struck a few years ago I ended up moving into a house featuring what clearly used to be a magnificent in-ground pool, now a home for frogs and a watery graveyard for hapless squirrels and rabbits. While the more fortunate call up the water truck or drop the hose in for the day, I’ll be angling for some new friendships.

From now until Labor Day, demand should be at its highest for gas as Americans embark on road trips. Baseball will be the only sport going. Like any holiday with a built in three-day weekend, and with Memorial Day’s status as the traditional beginning of summer, most people probably don’t give too much thought to the reason behind their day off. After all, who among us couldn’t use one?

As a native of Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day, you’d think it would be a little different for me growing up. Sure, we have a disproportionately large parade for a village of 5,000 or so people, and one year we managed to display so many flags we got a per capita record, but that status somehow hasn’t resulting in us knowing anymore about the day’s history than anyone else. I sure don’t. According to Waterloo’s website:


The story of Memorial Day begins in the summer of 1865, when a prominent local druggist, Henry C. Welles, mentioned to some of his friends at a social gathering that while praising the living veterans of the Civil War it would be well to remember the patriotic dead by placing flowers on their graves. Nothing resulted from this suggestion until he advanced the idea again the following spring to General John B. Murray. Murray, a civil war hero and intensely patriotic, supported the idea wholeheartedly and marshalled veterans’ support. Plans were developed for a more complete celebration by a local citizens’ committee headed by Welles and Murray.

On May 5, 1866, the Village was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries. There impressive ceremonies were held and soldiers’ graves decorated. One year later, on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated. In 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th, in accordance with General Logan’s orders. It has been held annually ever since.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson made an honest village out of us and signed the official proclamation. Nearly a dozen other communities across the country claim they were the first, including many in the South that claim they celebrated it under a different name, but that’s beside the point. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are both days devoted to a contemplation of those who have served and sacrificed for our country in the armed forces. But despite the better weather, Memorial Day has the more solemn charge. Though they’re celebrated and thought of in much the same way, on Veterans Day you can look into the eyes of those the nation is pausing to honor, or can be one of them. On Memorial Day, all we can do is remember.

The ultimate symbol is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – a young man who died in a foreign land, unburied, unidentifiable. We only know that he went, he fought and he is no more. Lacking closure, we honor the courage and the sacrifice of that soldier. We don’t let him disappear. There’s something more abstract and poignant about this sort of remembrance.

Holidays honoring veterans often double as patriotic booster events, but somehow that shoe doesn’t fit so well on Memorial Day. There are veterans of every sort, of popular and unpopular wars, who devote ample time to the American Legion and speaking out about the importance of supporting our troops and those who prefer not to talk about their service. But those who have died ask only that their sacrifice not be forgotten.

Memorial Day should honor the dead from all American wars. But the way the human and financial cost of ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been minimized –– in the government’s refusal to allow cameras to film returning coffins and hesitation to ask Americans to pay for the war, choosing instead to go further into debt while cutting taxes –– begs for special consideration.

The day should not be political, but it should involve a lucid and sober coming-to-grips with the fact that soldiers continue to die every day for our country. We owe them that.  